Friday the thirteenth — Good Friday in April. 1979 — dawned hot and clear over Baja California, and was hotter still by late morning or noon, when Eddie Duenez and Mike Askey pulled into Punta Prieta to join an untidy knot of humanity waiting at the Pemex station for a tanker to come and replenish pumps already drained by the early wave of long-weekend travelers. Duenez, in his nearly new, black, four-wheel-drive Toyota mini-truck with its chromed roll bar and angular swashes of orange forming Nike-like abstract flames along the sides, is ahead of Askey’s fancy van. The two of them have been fighting the monotony of the road and the mounting heat with nicely chilled beer for hours already, ever since leaving their week-long campsite at Mulege, some 340 miles to the south, at 6:30 a.m. All morning the two have been gradually pulling away from their friends — other district counselors of the San Diego school system — who were also encamped at Mulege but who are driving much slower Volkswagen campers. Askey and Duenez, thinking the improbable, still believe they may get far enough by nightfall to make it all the way to the USA in one day’s drive.
Some time has already been lost to socializing. An hour or so earlier they’d stopped to let Askey’s eleven-year-old nephew, Myron Woods, get out of the van to switch places with Eddie Duenez’s neighbor, Karla. On the road to Punta Prieta, Myron’s wish to sample the four-wheel ride was granted as Duenez took the Toyota off the asphalt and onto the bouncy dirt road alongside it, bringing up a smile to Myron’s face and a dust cloud for the trailing Askey to drive through.
But even before that ride was to occur, before the trip could resume, up drove Disco Mulege, which is how Askey and Duenez came to refer to a band of revelers who’d camped alongside the district counselors and their families. Hard to ignore Disco Mulege, their parachute spread above the beach on four posts, forming a sun shelter by day and an Arabian pleasure dome by night, with strobes flashing to the stereo dance beat. As Disco Mulege bounced to a halt alongside them, Askey and Duenez delayed the last leg of the drive to Punta Prieta for a scheduled gas stop. By the time they did re-embark for Punta Prieta, Eddie had added a couple of shots of Disco Mulege’s Cuervo Gold to the beer he’d already consumed.
“No sooner did we get in line to wait for gas than the same people drive up and get in line. Now, they were going to Bahia de Los Angeles, and that’s where they were going to turn off. I was about the fourth car in line. We were stuck there a good hour, maybe more. I’m not sure. We had the music going and it was hot and we were a little buzzed from the tequila and the beer. I remember the tanker truck coming and filling up the pumps, and the gas station guy giving us the okay to start filling up, and then filling up. I remember pulling away from the pump and driving behind the station to wait for Mike to get his gas. I think we continued to party a bit behind the station. I know while we were in line we continued to drink. It was a large group, we were dancing in the parking lot. We were screwed up, dancing to the music drinking tequila and waiting for the gas.
“I vaguely remember Mike driving up behind the station and talking window-to-window with him. But’s hard to remember much about this because, you know, once you get high you just ramble and we weren’t talking about things you’d be likely to remember — just, you know, where our next stop would be, did Myron want to stay with me — I’m sure we probably talked about how much time had gone by and that we had to fly and then, it was just, ‘Les’ go!’ I do remember leaving the gas station and looking to my left and to my right and taking off. That’s pretty much the last thing I remember.”
‘‘Well, right outside of Punta Prieta it’s straight. The whole shot for quite a ways you can go as fast as you can go. There are potholes, but it’s better to speed, ’cause if you go fast you can fly over the holes before your wheels bottom out. So we flew. It was low-level aviation shit, I mean gettin’ down. We were going so fast I began to think. Oh shit, we’re going too fuckin’ fast, this sucker is getting too far down the road too fast. . . Vaaa-roooooom. We were probably doing, oh, better than seventy, maybe eighty. It seemed like there was hardly no time from the time we left Punta Prieta to the point of the accident, and the next day when we re-drove it, it seemed longer than the day of the accident.
‘‘Earlier, when we were coming into Punta Prieta, I guess Ed had decided to give Myron a little thrill and he’d gotten off the main road and onto the dirt road. He didn’t go real fast, but he was doin’ okay because the road at that point is level and straight, he was just driving down a dirt road. Anyway, after Punta Prieta we were doing about seventy or eighty and there was this same little parallel dirt road alongside, I think where the old highway used to be, because it runs the whole length of the other. At first I thought he was doing it again, just wanted to pull off onto the dirt road, because I saw the dust cloud again up ahead only about 200 yards. No sooner had I thought that than I realized he had rolled the truck over. You see, the road is straight, and then all of a sudden he just shoots off to the left in a cloud of dust.
“Well, because of the sun being where it was, at about two or three o’clock, I could see the light hitting the chrome roll bar through the dust, and the roll bar turns over. It rolled over at least twice, as far as I could tell. I could see a flash of light twice, anyway, and I realized that the truck is rolling over.”
“We were at the gas station. Mike got out in front and then we passed him on the dirt road. We passed him on the right. Then we got back on the regular road. It was a long straight road. We was in the middle and you could just see the road disappear in the distance. He was driving okay, normal, about sixty-five. He just turned the wheel like this [Myron jerks his left hand to the left as if he’s holding a steering wheel; his right hand is cupped around an imaginary beer can]. He was probably trying to dodge something in the road and he was just going too fast to turn that quick. We were turning on two wheels and I looked at him and we rolled. I don’t remember tumbling or being upside down or nothing.
“They say I was standing up by the car, but I remember I was laying down like this [Myron throws his arms forward, and positions his head between them]. I remember trying to stand and falling down because my knees wouldn’t hold me. All I could tell was pain, all over my knees, my elbow. Mike came up to me, and he was on my left side. Somebody else was over here [on his right]. And they kind of walked me over to the van. I was calling my mother.
Mike told me, ‘She’s not here. She’s not here, Myron.’ ”
“I’ve thought about all this and wondered why I was mad at Ed. I was mad initially because I thought he’d killed Myron. When the car rolled, the first thought that came to my head was, ‘Myron’s in that truck instead of my van. Ed’s rolled it, Myron’s dead, I’m responsible for Myron, my nephew. The one time I take a kid with me camping, he winds up dead in Mexico.’ That’s what I was thinking.
“I was only a few hundred yards or so behind so I caught up with it all immediately and the truck was facing in the opposite direction we were traveling and was on its side. All the glass was out, everything in the back of it was scattered everywhere. Myron was standing, holding on to the back of the truck. I don’t know how the hell he could have managed even to be standing up, you know, because the doors were still closed, so both of them had to have popped out the windows. But there he is maybe only seconds or a minute after it happened — standing, just holding on to the back of the truck with his hands and yelling, ‘Mama, Mama, Mama,’ for at least ten minutes. That’s all he could say for maybe ten minutes.
“I didn’t know where Ed was. There was stuff all over but no Ed nowhere. Karla had jumped out, Gary [Mike’s son] was out, some other cars came by and people were starting to come around to see what had happened. So I check Myron over with the little bit of first aid I knew, to see how he was, if he was talking. He wasn’t bleeding from anywhere.” [Myron says, though, that he did have a deeply cut elbow.] “I checked all his bones and nothing seemed broken and I thought, ‘Oh well, he seems to be a lot better off than who-knows-how-Ed’s doing. So I told Myron, ‘We gotta put you in the van and you got to take care of yourself for a little while while we see if we can find Ed.’
“So we fan out in all different directions. Well, I eventually found him. I looked over to some point and saw an arm coming out of a suitcase. It was just that this suitcase had landed on top of him and all I could see at first was an arm. It reminded me of an accident I saw years ago where people were just ripped up into pieces, man. So the first thing I thought about when I saw Ed’s arm was, ‘I sure hope something’s connected to it.’
“I ran over to pick the suitcase up and, yeah, Eddie was laying there, face down in this pool of blood in the sand about a foot across, laying there with his hands like this [thrown out in front with the right side of the face down]. We couldn’t see what was wrong with him. Karla came running over, and we knew we had to do something and didn’t know what. We knew we couldn’t leave him there. What choice did we have? None and none. So we got a blanket out of the van.
“He wasn’t moving, just muttering. Everybody there decided to put him in the blanket and when we rolled him over, that’s when we saw how bad his injuries were. He was laying with his head kind of in his arms, face in the dirt, and as we rolled him over somebody had the blanket behind him so that he would roll right on to it. When, when he rolled back like that, his whole scalp kind of flipped back like a page in a book, from practically the center of his head all the way back.
“We had to pick him up and put him into the van. He seemed to be in shock, but when we moved him, it hurt him and he became ugly, more aware. Because everything was hurting him. We found out later he had a broken collarbone. We thought he had a broken leg, but it turned out that wasn’t so bad. He swore a lot, and thrashed around.
“There was a Federales station back at the gas station at Punta Prieta, so we turned around [with Duenez stretched out in the rear of the van] and went back there. And we found out the nearest hospital was Guerrero Negro, eighty miles south in the direction we’d just come from. And the other option was to try to get him to the army air force base at San Quintin [260 miles to the north] and try to fly him out of there. They have a military hospital there, but it’s not supposed to be worth diddly.
The truth is, there’s nothing in Guerrero Negro either. But we didn’t get to Guerrero Negro. At Punta Prieta, I’d figured the Federales must know something, and more than that, maybe they can take Eddie off my hands, because I don’t know what I’m going to do for him. But they don’t know nothin’ and don’t want nothin’ to do with nothin’. I was real disappointed with those people. We asked them where the nearest doctor was, and they say Guerrero Negro. So we headed south to Guerrero Negro and were on the road maybe a half hour or forty minutes and we ran upon some Green Angels [the Mexican government’s mobile mechanics who cruise the Transpeninsular Highway]. And we ask them for the nearest doctor and they say Guerrero Negro. ‘But,’ they say, ‘we just recently stopped for some guy down the road with a break-down and he’s an American paramedic and maybe he can help you.’ How? Where? ‘Not very far and he’s got one of those trailers that collapses down.’ So I figured we can’t miss that. Well, we do run across him and it seems like it’s an hour later. He’s in the middle of the road, trying to figure out what has happened to his car. I was still in the car and since his was still in the road, I just lean out the window and yell, ‘You a paramedic?’ and explain my friend’s in the car. ‘Can you see what you can do?’ ”
“I had been in Mexico for about two weeks. It was the end of my trip and I was heading back. I’d stopped for breakfast in San Ignacio and noticed some Green Angels, those public-service people who assist tourists and also do some emergency medical help, too, so we had a conversation because I was interested in what their duties and responsibilities are — they’re pretty limited by equipment and training, though, and they have to cover so many miles of roads. Their first aid is so basic . . .
“After I pulled out from San Ignacio, I’d only traveled about a hundred, maybe 150 miles and passed Guerrero Negro and had crossed from Baja Sur into Baja Norte and was maybe five miles north of there when my car started to sputter and stop. While I was sitting there, the Green Angels I’d been talking to came driving by with another fellow in their truck they said they were taking into Rosarito for some mechanical help and they said they’d stop and help me on their way back.
“It was about noon and I knew I’d get some help eventually, so I waited. It was probably an hour before I began wondering if they were really going to come back and whether I was going to be stranded there the rest of my life. I was with my wife and foster daughter, who was sixteen at the time, and my natural daughter, who was twelve. I was waiting and someone pulled in behind me. I was kind of relieved that someone might be able to help, because it turned out he was a mechanic. His name was Robert Beltran, and he started looking and told me it was probably dirt in the fuel filter, and about that time a van pulled in from the other direction with people waving their arms and talking frantically.
“It was a tall, lean black fellow driving and he stopped across the street and leaned out of the window and asked if either one of us is a paramedic. I swallowed hard, kind of realized something was up, and I answered yes, I was. Mike screamed, ‘Great!’ and asked, ‘Can you help my friend?’ I didn’t know what to expect but I figured if he had his friend with him then it couldn’t be all that serious. I was dead wrong. I went around the other side of the van and the black fellow, it was Mike, of course, Mike opened the van door and there is a young Mexican-American, Eddie, in very very bad condition, lying in the van. I knew lots of work was ahead — immediately. I didn’t have to get very close to know that, because he was in shock, perspiring heavily, wet and cold and very pale. His face was very large, it was swollen, and they had a compress bandage on his head. There was still a lot of bleeding, it was still seeping through the covering they’d applied. He wasn’t conscious, no movement whatsoever. He was completely flaccid and he wasn’t responsive to pain stimuli.”
“When I asked if he was a paramedic, he looked kinda disappointed because I found out later he’d been working on his car for a long time and was already frustrated, and then to have this happen to him too was more than he was ready for in one day — but then, his day was only getting to be like mine had been for some time, and I wasn’t ready for it either. So he went into the trunk of his car and brought out this kind of tool kit. He opened it up and it looked like a junkie’s paradise. I was amazed. I’ve seen doctors’ bags before, but his looked like he was ready for anything — swabs, medication, instruments. I said, ‘Damn!’ ”
“I had all these tools I’d borrowed from my hospital to take down with my first-aid kit for the specific purpose of taking care of my family. About a year before I’d been with four or five other paramedics and we flew into Mulege, to the Serenidad Hotel, and when we landed we found that an airplane with seven Americans had crashed one hour earlier and five were killed outright. The other two were critically injured with multiple fractures and internal bleeding and we had absolutely nothing with us, just our bare hands, and we could only stand around helpless. They had to be flown across to Guerrero Negro, where they were routed into a small clinic, where they both died. They never made it to a major trauma center or a hospital, just a seven- or eight-bed small clinic that had no business taking care of them. Because of that, I told myself I’d never be down there unprepared again. I decided to take the tools I needed in case anyone close to me was injured.”
“He said, ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ and I told him we were heading for the hospital in Guerrero Negro and he said, ‘Well, right now I’ve got to see if I can stabilize him.’ He got out this solution and because Eddie’d gotten dirt all through his scalp, he said he’d have to irrigate with the solution, and then he put an IV in his arm and air splint on his leg because we thought it — or his ankle, really — had been broken.”
“I was driving north with my wife and kids, and my uncle was behind us, and I saw this car stopped in the road with some kind of trouble. He was at the top of a hill and I thought I’d stop to see if I could help, because I’m a mechanic.
“It wasn’t very long after that when the guy in the van, Mike, pulled up and everyone in it was shook up and scared. He [Mike] said he had somebody in the van and asked where the nearest hospital was. Well, there’s nothing in that direction [to the south] until Santa Rosalia and I told them to head back north to Punta Prieta and then go on over to L. A. Bay [Bahia de Los Angeles] because they could get an air evac out of there. I didn’t even know that the fireman [Ray] was a paramedic at that point.
“So Ray got in the van and then stuck his head out and looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you give me a hand?’ Eddie wasn’t moving or talking. He just wasn’t functioning at all. He was wet, I don’t know if it was from the blood, and his head was all wrapped up and bigger than a basketball. I couldn’t recognize him because his head was so big.
“We were in the van and Ray had me hold his head up, and then his legs, elevate his legs. The doc, Ray, cleared his mouth out to give him an airway so he wouldn’t choke on his tongue. He injected him with something and then started this intravenous feeding.”
“He had one of the largest lacerations I’ve seen in my career ... he was effectively scalped. He needed to be in a hospital for x-rays and examination. Anytime someone has a laceration that large it involves a severe blow of great force and that blow alone has to be considered as the cause of at least a badly bruised brain, a concussion, or possible a skull fracture. It’s not an obvious thing, it has to be x-rayed. I also had to consider that he might have been bleeding inside the skull.
“Usually when someone has a brain injury, there’s a slowing of pulse as the pressure on the brain rises, the heart slows to protect the brain. Eddie had a very rapid pulse, beating at about 160 to 170 beats per minute, and that is not a symptom of an intercranial bleed. He had a very, very low blood pressure and a rapid pulse and just the opposite is true of a person with a substantial head injury; they normally have a slow pulse and an elevating blood pressure.
“I lifted the scalp to peer in and see, if I could, what kind of damage might have been done to the skull, and it took two hands to handle that laceration. So I had my daughter, my foster daughter, hold the scalp. She had never confronted any medical emergency before but she’s a gutsy little girl and she put both hands on that scalp so I could be free to look in. I couldn’t see any obvious depression in the skull, or any gray matter exposed, so at that point we irrigated as much of the sand and dirt from the wound as we could with some sterile saline solution, which I had three or four liters of, just trying to get the heavier pieces of debris out so he could be bandaged.
“There was blood all over the van and it was that very low blood pressure and how hard his heart was working to pump around what fluid was left that worried me. I drew some blood for a sample for a hematocrit [a test of the ratio of red blood cells to plasma to be done later in a hospital]. Now, adding a great deal of fluid to the circulatory system would be an abnormal thing to do in a severe skull injury, but he was really low in volume. So I had to make a decision to add fluid because of his blood loss, or to be conservative with fluid and hope I could get in enough without aggravating any possible brain hemorrhaging.
“I decided to add Ringer’s lactate and normal saline to his system, so I started the I Vs. I missed one or two attempts at the veins and usually I’m pretty good, which told me, also, that there was very little fluid in his veins. They were like limp strands of spaghetti, they just wobbled under the needle, they were flaccid.
“After the first liter of fluid, I retook his blood pressure and I hadn’t made much of a dent in the readings. It had come up from an upper reading — the systolic — of sixty to seventy. So I continued to add fluid. After about two and one-half liters went in [human capacity is from five to six liters], there was a noticeable improvement in his pressure. We were up to about eighty over forty.”
“While he was working there on the side of the road, a few cars would pull by and look because we were in the middle of the road, nearly, and the next thing we knew, Ed’s sister drives up, going north. She and a friend were down in Mulege and left early to go further down. We knew they’d be coming back at about the same time we would be, but we didn’t expect to see them. She just saw my van, that’s all. You know, my van was not inconspicuous. So she pulled up and I just said, ‘Oh, Julie, I hate to do this to you, but Ed’s had an accident and he’s in the back of the van and he’s plenty fucked up.’ And she got out of the car and took a look.”
“I knew the van, of course, so we stopped. I had no idea anything was wrong with Eddie, and Mike said, ‘Oh Julie, am I glad to see you. Eddie’s been in an accident, and he’s hurt seriously.’ I felt some fear, I didn’t know really what to expect. I went inside the van and Karla was inside with Ray Seeger. Karla told me not to look because it was really bad.
“I think I was not myself. I think I . . . On one hand I thought at the time I was being cool headed. At the same time I was a little detached, too. I felt that I was the one responsible now. I was family.”
“It wasn’t more than twenty minutes after Mike drove up with Eddie that Julie arrived. She saw the van parked there and didn’t know anything was going on.
"I had transfused quite a bit of fluid and I had to be cautious then, because I didn’t want to overdilute him. When the blood pressure rose to that point, he became combative. Not argumentative, because he didn’t speak. He didn’t speak for a while, he was never coherent the whole time I was in attendance. But he started to thrash and move about, which was an indication to me that his body systems were improving with the increase in pressure, and that his brain was being better perfused that it had been.
“He had probably gone into shock in the van, because he continued to bleed in the van. They [Karla, who was a veterinarian’s assistant] had succeeded in stemming the flow, but they didn’t have control over the hemorrhage, he was still bleeding and by the time they had him in the van, every drop he lost was becoming more critical. Afterwards, I talked to my brother, who’s an emergency room physician, and found out that after forty to fifty percent loss of blood, unconsciousness ensues, and that kind of loss is nearly not compatible with life.
“We had to restrain him once he came around, because he didn’t need to aggravate his injuries, or increase his heart rate. I do remember Robert, the mechanic, who had stopped to help me with my car right in there next to me. He was really helpful, very aggressive in helping. All of his [Eddie’s] friends were. At the time, Robert didn’t even recognize Eddie, and didn’t until Eddie’s sister drove up.”
“We grew up about a half mile from each other. He took my paper route over from me when I was in seventh grade or so. The next I saw him was years later when he was on his way to basic training in the Army and I had just finished, and then a bit later we were both at Fort Carson, Colorado. Then I got rerouted to Camp Hunter Liggett up near Paso Robles, and bigger ’n life, Eddie shows up again, he was somebody’s driver. And there weren’t many people stationed there at the time, just some unit from New York.”
“While the fluid was going in, I surveyed the rest of his body for any fractures. He had an ankle injury so we put in a freon [gas-inflated] splint, and he had a bruised chest. His lungs seemed clear enough, and he had some bruising around his shoulder, but that didn’t concern me. But we did take someone’s life preserver and cut it up to improvise a cervical spine collar to support his neck, in case there was anything wrong there.
“I’d needed to stabilize him first, and buy some time to think about the next move, where to take him. We were some 400 miles from the border at that point [Guerrero Negro is in reality about 500 miles from the border] and I didn’t know if Eddie had that much time. I haven’t faced a problem like that. I work in the City of Los Angeles, where hospitals are ten to fifteen miles away. I was inclined to take him to Bahia de Los Angeles [some sixty miles away], where there’s an airstrip. I thought that if we could get there, we could get Eddie out of Mexico by air.”
”He told us we had no choice but to get him back to the States. If you put him in a hospital down there, you got to go through customs, insurance hassles, and whatnot, just to keep him down there for a few days, and by that time he might be dead. Ray said he needed neurosurgery and he said to turn around and head for San Quintin to fly him out because that’s where the army air force base is.
“Okay, so we head north to San Quintin, and that was another turnaround. We’ve been north of Punta Prieta, then south nearly to Guerrero Negro, and now we’re going back north again. You get to wonderin’ how far you’ll get before you run out of time. It’s getting later in the afternoon and I was gettin’ the sense that things were starting to break down. On top of it all, we can’t move too fast because we’ve got to keep Ray’s car behind us. Robert is driving it and Ray’s wife and kids are in it, and it keeps sputtering. So we get back to Punta Prieta and the Federates station. By then it was after 5:00 p.m., and the accident happened just about 2:00 p.m. It’s getting late. So we decide we can’t make San Quintin [another 260 mites] before dark. The only option we’d talked about was to go over to L. A. Bay. There’s an airstrip there, if you can get someone to fly you out. Well, by then, Rudy Aleman and the Swensons [the district counselor, teacher, and their families whose slower campers had been left behind on the trip up from Mulege] had caught up to the accident scene.”
“We originally surmised something was wrong, we weren’t sure what, when we were somewhere just south of Punta Prieta. You see, Mike passed us going south at a high rate of speed and waved at us, as if it were a hello. We thought that he must be returning to Guerrero Negro or somewhere south of that because he might have forgotten something — a wallet or something — at a pit stop, and that he was going back to pick it up.
“So we continued through Punta Prieta, and maybe six to ten kilometers north we see these cousins of the Swensons, their motor home really, who had been down at Mulege, and then the wreckage, and they wave us down. They explained what little they knew. They’d been picking up everything they could so that it wouldn’t be lost, and I asked if anybody had gone into the glove compartment for his papers, and they hadn’t. So I got his registration, his wallet, insurance papers, and so on. And we went back to Punta Prieta because we all needed gas.”
“Well, when we rolled up to the Federales station in Punta Prieta, we ran into everybody else. Rudy and the Swensons had stopped at the gas station, which was just across the street. Julie was inside the Federales station trying to get a radio operator to call the United States and Rudy and the Swensons came running over.”
“You know, if you have an accident in Mexico, you can’t leave the country; you have to show identification, insurance, your driver’s license, and we didn’t have any of that, and we were trying to get authorization for him [Eddie] to leave the country. Just at the point the radio operator was getting that message, about us having to show the papers, Rudy came running up with them. That’s what strikes me about this whole story, the high number of coincidences. Robert Beltran being with the paramedic, who was in the right place. Rudy with the papers, the orthopedic surgeon.”
“Word spread among the Americans there [around the Pemex station] that there was an emergency and some fellow who identified himself as an orthopedic surgeon peered in the back of the van and attempted to assess Eddie’s condition. He seemed to be real concerned with the fractures, but not much with the other aspects of his problem. He examined the ankle and his shoulder, said there wasn’t much he could do that hadn’t already been done, and kind of patted me on the shoulder and told me, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ We couldn’t wait much longer and had to move. It seemed we were at Punta Prieta only about fifteen minutes, just enough to get the message out. The Federales have a radio at Punta Prieta and an attempt was made to contact Eddie’s father on that radio. They started the message, but said it would be some time before they could get a reply.”
“They went into Punta Prieta, and I told ’em I’d follow with Ray’s wife. It took about an hour, an hour and a half to get there, and they were still there when we pulled in. There was a radio there, a radio that belonged to someone, maybe the Federates, and someone was using it.
“And this girl walked up to me, a woman, and said, ‘Aren’t you Beltran?’ It was the same woman who came up to the van white we were stopped earlier, and she said, ‘I’m a Duefiez, I’m Julie,’ and, well, I didn’t recognize her because she was older than me, more my brother’s age. And I said, ‘Oh. Yeah. Isn’t this a coincidence.’
“And she said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ and she pointed to the van. ‘That’s Eddie,’ she said.
“And I said, ‘Nahhh. That ain’t Eddie.’ I never knew it was her, I never found out it was Eddie until we got to Punta Prieta and she said, ‘Aren’t you Beltran?’
“So we continued on up the road to the accident, it was maybe two mites, and picked up a lot of his stuff and drove on to San Diego.”
“So it had all come together very strangely for us, the gathering at Punta Prieta. It started the wheels in motion. My assignment was to get on the road north and to keep trying to get some rescue started toward L.A. Bay, wherever I could stop. We left and stopped at every place that might be of help. Thee are radios in every El Presidente [hotel] along the way and I’ll tell you, the whole coast knew about the accident. By our second stop, they already knew who we were when we walked up.
“But I’ll tell you, when we left Punta Prieta I didn’t think he was gonna live another twenty minutes, and that’s what everybody else thought, too. He was erratic and wild and screaming and trying to stand up. They had to hold him down — literally sit on him. It was not easy to do this, because he looked so gross and was fighting so hard — a real struggle. Maybe it was just his will to live, and that somehow he was able to think that if he was standing up, he would be okay, but if he were lying down ...”
“I can remember him yellin’. He was cursin,’ tryin’ to touch his head, and they’d tell him, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and they’d hold him down. He wanted to do a lot of things, but he wouldn’t be able to walk if he tried.”
“We had spent three, four hours running around and were back where we’d started from. And these feelings we all began to have were like sinking or drowning, where you’ve got all your clothes on and first you get your boots off to lighten the load, but then your clothes have gotten wetter, and you keep taking things off but you aren’t makin’ it, it keeps dragging you down, and you begin to hear a voice that says, ‘No. You’re not going to get out of this one!’ ”
“To L.A. Bay it was rather a bumpy ride. There’s a lot of potholes part of the way, and it was partly dirt too. That was a problem because I couldn’t rule out some cervical fracture. So we had to drive more slowly than we wanted. We had some fifty or sixty miles to travel and our speed was cut sometimes to twenty-five miles per hour. We knew, I didn’t but others did, that we had to get to Bahia de Los Angeles [on the Gulf of California] before the sun went down because there are aviation restrictions against flying small crafts out of there at night.”
“It was getting near dusk and we’re cutting through the mountains east to L.A. Bay and we got to the point where we could actually see the water of L.A. Bay.
“I get a flat tire.
“I nearly shit on myself. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I couldn’t believe it! So I jumped out to fix the flat, but remember, there’s all that stuff in the back of my van, the camping stuff jammed in the back to make room for Eddie and everybody else [Ray and Karla and Ray’s foster daughter, and, of course, Eddie]. And the jack is on the bottom of all of it. I open the back of the van and some of the stuff tries to fall out. I have to dig out the jack. I’m getting so pissed I can’t stand it, the delay is killing me, and I’m beatin’ on the tire and puttin’ the nuts back on and shoving everything back into the back of the van and then ... I can’t find my keys.”
“It took us about fifteen minutes to change the tire, but the keys were lost in the scramble — it was like a pit stop — and it took probably twenty minutes to find the keys. My daughter found them, they’d been laid on the bumper of the van. and she somehow came up with them.
“We did arrive at L.A. Bay before the sun was altogether down, but it was large and orange. The sky was brilliant, the clouds were reflecting light. There was maybe an hour of light left, and some of that would have been twilight. As we pulled toward the town, we could see the airstrip. There was a little red-and-white Piper just landing.”
“Well, when we pulled in there, there was a guy getting out of an airplane. We didn’t stop to say nothin’ to nobody else and we pulled straight up to the plane and said, ‘Hey. Don’t go anywhere. We need to talk to you, now.’ He was an Oriental guy and we got him to talking and he said, no, he couldn’t fly out of there because it was getting too late and there was some law about single-engine planes and night flying and this thing and that thing. And I wanted to smack him and said, ‘What are you talking about? C’mon!’
“He was a doctor, an anesthetist I think, in the L.A. area. He got into the back of the van and assessed these notes on vital signs that I’d been keeping on two, maybe three pie plates. I didn’t have any paper. We pleaded with him to fly Eddie out to the States. He said that’s where he needed to go, and that he would have done it by day but he was not instrument rated and that not only was it illegal for him to fly at night, but that he didn’t have the confidence to do it, and he’d be afraid of doing it. To me it made sense. He offered his room, showed us his room he’d reserved. We drove over to it and backed up to the doorway. Before we could move him, I wanted to immobilize his spine, and we did that by finding this large plank and tying him to it. Then we put him in the doctor’s unused bed.”
“We finally got him into a room, a bed. He might have gone unconscious then, I think he did. At that point I just couldn’t look at him any longer. I wanted something to do. I was hyper, my behavior was not too typical. Karla and I left and began looking around for pilots.”
“Well, this Oriental guy is a doctor. So he decided to take a look at Eddie, and about the time he’s doing that, Connie comes up acting like a butterfly out of the heavens, a smile all over her face. She’d recognized my van while we were pulling up to the plane and she was in the hotel eating dinner and she comes running up, happy as hell.”
“We’d been camped out at L.A. Bay. I’m a district counselor, too, and we all knew we were going to be down in Baja the same time, but different places. We’d run out of food, so we’d come into town to eat dinner at the hotel. I was just elated when I saw Mike’s van down on the airstrip, and I chased him down and must have said something like. 'Mike! Oh, boy. What’s happening?’ And he just looked at me and said, ‘Connie, this ain’t time for fun.’ I looked in the van and I just didn’t recognize Eddie. Even his voice was different. There was blood everywhere and I was working hard to find Eddie in all this. You know, I know him pretty well. I remember looking in that van and finally putting it together that it really was Eddie. And I said, ‘But my brother’s a doctor,’ and I turned around and screamed, ‘Bob!’ He and his wife, Debbie, who’s a nurse and was back then his girlfriend, were there with us camping.”
“Connie came screaming for us the whole way. We got to the van and here’s this guy with an IV in his arm and a huge bandage on his head and blood all over the place.
“That paramedic was so good. He’d written down all the vitals he’d taken on a paper plate. It was our only record of what had happened. It was good that Bob [Bob Carter, who at the time was in medical residency in Sacramento] was there, but we could do little more than what the paramedic had already done because Bob had no equipment. We had no medication. Bob tried to get pharmacies from a doctor or druggist who lives there. He was very difficult and wasn’t going to help. He called Bob all kinds of gringo names.
“Eddie was critical when he reached Ray. In the hotel room he continued to lose some fluids, he did soak through the bandage on his head and there was fluid on his pillow, but most of it was under control by the time he reached us. I just want to make sure Ray gets all the credit.
“Ray could have continued on with what he was doing without us. But it became a shared experience, that’s what’s so beautiful about this story. Eddie was not meant to die. There were too many people in the right place at the right time.”
“I was relieved that competent medical help other than myself was available to share the responsibility and the problem that Eddie had brought down upon us all.
Dr. Carter read my notes, evaluated the medical course that had been followed up to that point. After that we sort of shared the responsibility for any decision that had to be made to administer any additional medications, and those eventually came to include steroids [to reduce swelling], narcotics, antibiotics [to fight infection in what was still a dirty wound], anti-arhythmics [to promote a regular heartbeat in an overworked organ], and Ph stabilizers [to prevent his system from becoming acidic while it wasn’t metabolizing normally]. Dr. Carter found out that there was a fellow working for the Diazes [the unofficial ruling family of Bahia de Los Angeles] who managed the place and he told Carter that there was a doctor who took care of the villagers there, and he had some medications. So Carter went to see him to see what he could procure. The doctor was unwilling to look at Eddie and even reluctant to give up medicine. Carter was bold. He finally commandeered, after some heavy verbal debate, the antibiotics and the steroids. He was just very bold.”
“Karla and I went to different homes looking for pilots. We finally found an American who said he’d fly out at first light and everyone kept saying it was impossible to do anything at night there. It’s a dirt strip with no lights and the village is right at one end of the runway. Mama Diaz was especially adamant about it. I asked if there was a radio there so I could try to reach my parents and there was. You have to call short-wave operators [hams] farther up and the calls are transferred to phones. I reached them [Pedro and Helen Duenez] just as they were walking in the door. I told my father everything but didn’t say I thought Eddie was dying. I told him we had arrangements to fly him out at daybreak and that the reason they don’t do it at night is there are no lights on the strip.”
“Actually, Julie didn’t get through first. The American Consul in Tijuana was the first call and he said, ‘He’s been in a very serious accident and that’s all I can tell you. But if you call a Mrs. Flores [the ham in Tijuana who’d received Julie’s call from Bahia de Los Angeles] in Tijuana, she can put you in touch with your daughter.’
“The first thing I did was call the whole family to get here to the house. Then I called Mrs. Flores and she put Julie on the line. Julie couldn’t hear me too well at all, but I could hear her fine. She told me to get him out as soon as possible. It was a bit after dusk.
“The first thing I could do was call the Coast Guard and they said it would take three days to get clearance from the Mexican government to fly in there. They told me to try Jimsair [an ambulance and charter service at Lindbergh Field] but they said they aren’t allowed to land there at night. They told me to try an M.D. who flies out to care for people on tuna boats, but he was under the same restriction. He gave me the number of an air service in Los Angeles, but they couldn’t find a ready pilot. But they did give me the name of Jack Jaax [a self-employed bush pilot in Calexico]. He said, ‘I’m all gassed up and ready but I can’t risk my life and my plane on a broken leg or arm.’ I told him it was my son and if my daughter says he’s got a serious head injury, he does. She wouldn’t have gone through all that trouble if it weren’t. And he said, ‘Okay. It’s 9:30. I can be there in an hour.’
“So then I called back Mrs. Flores to tell her that I have a pilot and to put me in touch with Julie again. And she says, ‘You can’t. They don’t allow anyone to land down there at night.’ And right then I could hear a call and static from her radio and she says just a minute. I could hear that it was Jaax calling the comandante down there and asking for permission to land. And I heard him give it. Mrs. Flores came back on the line and said, ‘Well, I guess you heard that.’ And I got through to Julie and told her the plane would be landing about 11:30.”
“After my first conversation with my father, I think, by then, Eddie was out of it. At some point, I went to get a Coke and was gone for a while and before I got back to the hotel room, there was another call from my father to tell me that a plane was coming at 11:30. We jumped up and screamed and just went berserk.”
Mike, Karla, and Julie
Mike: That he’d be there at 11:30. Oh man, you should’ve seen all the people standing on that porch, saying 11:30?! Along about 11:45 everyone was looking into the sky. Then Eddie said something to Connie that she really went off on. What was it? He said something to her like, “I’m concerned about my having to be here.” As if he had a choice!
Julie: We kept trying to make radio contact with the pilot but he didn’t have his radio on, or something. He had given us really specific directions as to how to fix up the strip. He wanted a car at each end with its lights on. He didn’t want any flares, but they [local people and tourists] did it anyway. We couldn’t stop them.
Karla: The really exciting moment was when we first heard the plane and saw the lights.
Mike: Way out in the desert.
Karla: With that full moon in the sky.
Mike: We expected him to come in and make a couple of passes and figure out what he was going to do to get down, but he didn’t. He just came down in one swoop . . . Vrrroooom.
Julie: He looked like a bush pilot.
Karla: He did. He was young and handsome, interesting looking, and in that uniform . . .
Julie: He didn’t have a scarf around his neck.
Karla: But what was funny was, the whole town turned out. And there were guys with suitcases who showed up and it looked like they wanted to take off with the plane.
Julie: Some guy told me there was going to be a dance, and wanted to know if I was going to go.
“We were sitting for hours for that plane to appear. It was between midnight and 1:00 a.m. when it finally touched down . . . a really clear night, and a hot night. The stars were out with a few wispy clouds and a full moon. The people who owned the hotel requested that everyone with a car move them down to the airstrip and light their headlights for the plane, because they have no control tower or lights and it’s a dirt strip and dangerous. It seemed like thirty cars lined the runway.
“There was so much participation as a group by so many people that it was an incredible experience. It was great. Once the plane touched down there was a frenzy of activity while Eddie was carried to it and loaded, and the pilot decided how many people he could take. More wanted to go but it wasn’t possible because of the weight factor. I know Julie wanted to go but wasn’t allowed to ... it was just more weight than he could carry. It was the pilot, Eddie, Dr. Carter, and the boy, Myron, who went back.’’
"After the first arrangement to fly Eddie out at 4:30 a.m. [with an American pilot staying at Bahia de Los Angeles], we’d had a chance to relax. But when word came he would be leaving at 11:30, we had to get moving again. We had to reach that pilot to cancel the morning flight, and get the cars rounded up to line the landing strip. It was quite a scene. There were people gathered around us who we didn’t know, and it was almost bright — the whole town was lit up, and of course it was a full moon. When the plane landed, the seats had to be taken out of it. At the last minute. Mama Diaz brought out a stretcher for Eddie and he was loaded onto that — it was her contribution. As soon as the plane took off we celebrated a little bit and turned to walk back toward the town and as we were walking back all the town’s lights went out. I suppose they were on a central switch.’’
“It was Friday the thirteenth. Good Friday the thirteenth. I just can’t impress on you enough what a fine night it was when Eddie took off. I hadn’t dared to alter my mental status until he was gone. I had to draw on every neuron to think of everything that needed attention. But as soon as he took off I didn’t have to think anymore, I was on vacation again. Mike and I were standing by each other and then sat back and watched the plane taxi and then take off. We watched its lights going blink-blink, blink-blink, blink-blink into the distance until we couldn’t see them anymore. And by then, we were high."
Early on the morning of April 14, nearly twelve hours after Eddie’s Toyota rolled over, pilot Jack Jaax entered San Diego air space in thick fog with perhaps three to four gallons of fuel remaining. He circled Lindbergh Field for what seemed like forty-five minutes to Pedro and Helen Duenez, who were waiting on the ground along with much of the rest of Eddie’s family — two of his other sisters and their husbands who had been frantically lining up loans and contributions to pay for the rescue effort and the looming hospitalization costs.
Helen and Pedro Duenez still get tears in their eyes when they recall those first few minutes after the plane landed. "I went up to the plane and got to Eddie and it was bad," Mr. Duenez remembers. “His head was out to here, he looked more dead than alive, and I leaned in toward him, his eyes were closed and I couldn’t tell if he knew who I was, and I said, ‘How are you, son?’ and he said very softly, ‘I’m all right. Pop.’ Which of course thrilled me. Then he went out again and that was all. After that I couldn’t tell what was going on in his head."
A waiting ambulance took Eddie first to Sharp Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, where he was further cleaned up, transfused with blood, and quickly transferred to Kaiser Hospital. At Kaiser he underwent surgery and began a long convalescence, the earliest part of which is beyond his memory. April 30 was the first day he remembers opening his eyes and talking, though he had drifted in and out of lucidity before that. He was transferred once again, this time back to Sharp’s rehabilitation unit. A little more than two months after the accident he was released from Sharp and began meeting with the people — friends, relatives, and strangers — who helped him in an effort to understand as much as is possible what had occurred.
Mike Askey remains his friend. Ray Seeger, still working in the Los Angeles area, became his friend and the two visit each other frequently. A runner of half marathons before the accident, Duenez has worked his way back to running ten-kilometer races.